The Roller-Coaster Ride Of La Liga’s Title Race

For much of the season, FC Barcelona were in crisis (and if you follow Marca or AS, then you would be led to believe that Barca are immersed in turmoil almost forever). The team wasn’t playing too well, the players appeared physically under par, the Ronaldinho fracture was threatening to boil and spill all over Catalonia, the coach was being hounded by the press to dash to the border, top striker Samuel Eto’o and Argentine wonder kid Lionel Messi were falling preys to the injury monster and by January end Barca had tumbled down the ropes to a seemingly unassailable 9 point off the pace.

And at the end of last weekend, it was Real, Real Madrid that is, who were at the receiving end. Then it was the Castilian giants who were enveloped in a crisis that wasn’t so much as forcefully rammed down the throat as willingly embraced like a lost lover rediscovered after ages. It appeared that the pendulum of panic had swayed from the Camp Nou cathedral to the Santiago Bernabeu church with Lady Luck moving in the opposite direction.

Because after Week 25 reigning La Liga champions Real Madrid had their lead over second placed Barcelona slimmed down to just 2 points. Because Real had dropped points at home for the first time in La Liga this season. Because Getafe inflicted Real’s first defeat at the Bernabeu in 19 matches. Because Bernd Schuster’s not-so-appealing side had then lost 6 games in their last 10 matches in all competitions. Because in the past one month while Barca had been climbing the ladder with a consistent pace, Real had been gleefully performing the parachute-jump.

But after this weekend the Spanish league mistress has galloped back to the Bernabeu with pores wide open. Both Barcelona and Real Madrid’s games were on Saturday this time and both played away from home. While Barca had Ronaldinho scoring the best goal of the weekend anywhere in Europe and had over 65% of the possession at Atletico Madrid and still managed to be thumped 4-2, Real played gruelingly morose football against relegation threatened Recreativo de Huelva but still won 3-2. The gap between Real and Barca is restored to 5 points and they are crackling their heads off in Madrid.

When los Merengues went 9 points clear at the end of Week 21 in January end, most, including this writer, were convinced that the only way back for Barca relied on a miracle shot down from the heavens. That or a dramatic, and at the time unlikely, withering of form of Real Madrid. And boy, didn’t Real’s form wither! Although Schuster has gifted the Madridistas more flair and entertainment than Fabio Capello did last season, the team’s football this season hasn’t been within a 50-mile radius of being great. It was Real’s efficiency more than anything else that has been their game’s best element. And now their efficiency looks vulnerable.

Real Madrid’s last weekend’s defeat against Getafe at the Bernabeu was no fluke and certainly not a one-off. Getafe are Real’s bogey team and on Sunday Schuster’s old club, now managed by the increasingly impressive Michael Laudrup, demonstrated the host of weaknesses that have plagued the side since that marvelous 1-0 win over Barca at Camp Nou in late December. Sunday last, in spite of a severely depleted starting line-up with no Wesley Sneijder, no Robinho, no Pepe, no Christoph Metzelder, no Mahamadou Diarra, no Marcelo and with only six players on the substitutes bench, Real were still the better side (on paper) and after having won 11 out of 11 matches at home, they were touted to sustain that perfect home record.

Yet it was modest Getafe trapped in the mediocrity of the mid-table with one ear open for the sound of the relegation-stamped chariot storming closer and closer who taught their more illustrious rivals a bitter footballing lesson. Getafe’s football was not attractive but they tightened their defense with 6 bodies, trimmed space in midfield and with just Uche upfront seduced the Real Madrid backline to play a bit higher up the line. Real had all the possession in the world but the dense traffic refused them any gap to exploit. So much so that they were comically caught out in the 64th minute when Arjen Robben thought he had scored a goal which he hadn’t and Uche, who had ripped Real apart in his last visit to the Bernabeu with Recreative de Huelva, punished them on the counter-attack.

Contrast that with what Barcelona did to Levante just 90 minutes earlier. True, the make-me-laugh of Spanish football are rock-bottom in La Liga and are virtually guaranteed of playing Segunda Division football next season but it was Barcelona’s thumping self-conviction and smug self-assurance that were the highlights of the evening in the Catalan capital. Coach Frank Rijkaard’s side played some lovely football at Camp Nou and the 5-1 scoreline in their favour isn’t something that they didn’t deserve.

Xavi Hernandez scored while playing as an attacking midfielder rather than as a Pep Giurdiola many suppose him to be, Andreas Iniesta was dominant in midfield possession despite his slender build, Carles Puyol and Gabriel Milito didn’t flinch in defense, Lionel Messi was again flashing the same old ridiculous sorcery and Samuel Eto’o finally exorcised his injury demons by scoring a sensational hat-trick which was not without a touch of comedy though. That Eto’o is back is a clarion-like ring in the Camp Nou faithful’s ears and as for Ronaldinho, his sole contribution to the game was to fly the ball miles above the Levante crossbar in the 16th minute as in a rugby match. In fact, the 27-year old Brazilian ace is already a shoe-out of Barcelona and the Barca fans wouldn’t as much dab at the corners of their eyes as walk him to the Barcelona station and see him off in the train that departs for Milan in the summer.

But this weekend the fortunes were reversed and it was the Catalans who were taking the bath much to the gloating gladness of the Madrid dailies. As Barcelona were being blown away 4-2 Down Melancholics Way at the Calderon by an Atletico side whose season has somewhat derailed in the last month, Real were dancing to the Samba tune of Robinho to a 3-2 win at Recre. Barca were guilty of not creating enough to rattle the Atletico defense and were caught flat-footed when the Rojiblancos came on the counter. Coach Frank Rijkaard must have had half an eye on midweek’s UEFA Champions League tie with Glasgow Celtic and decided to play Lionel Messi off the bench. That subtracted a significant slice of edge from the Barcelona attack and although Real Madrid boss Bernd Schuster too played his ace (read Robinho) off the bench, he had (and has) more cause for concern as AS Roma visit the Bernabeu on Wednesday.

Real won against Recre due to the instant influence of Robinho who came on in the 73rd minute of the second half and scored in the 74th minute and added one again to virtually wrap up the match. In the end the Madridistas picked up all 3 points and stretched their lead over second placed Barcelona back to 5 points.

Yet the celebration in the all-white half of Madrid isn’t without a touch of apprehension. True, Real emerged as the better side in their La Liga match against Recreativo but they didn’t look like champions at all in the first 45 minutes when Recre even had the audacity to take an impossible lead against the 9 times European champions. And then there is this February crisis that could well come back to haunt Real later in the season.

If Real Madrid were pants against Almeria in their 2-0 away defeat in early February, then they were stripped to their undies at Real Betis in the middle of the month and the 7-0 hammering of Real Valladolid sandwiched in between was more like a temporary nightclub distraction to a teenager desperately unable to recover from a broken relationship. The Merengues were again defeated at AS Roma in the UEFA Champions League and then came the Getafe shock. On the other hand, Barcelona have won 4 out of their last 7 matches in all competitions losing only once in that period and have become convincing once again having scored 11 goals in their last four matches even if they had lost to Atletico in the weekend.

The final conclusion is this: the Spanish title race has been blown wide open. One week ago Barcelona are just TWO close to self-destructive Real Madrid to be written off. Now of course the Whites are giving themselves a high FIVE. Yet if the last four weeks are any indicators, then there will be more twists and turns as the season progresses. The race to the chequered flag in La Liga is still on. So sit back and enjoy the roller-coaster.

Arrow to top